The first thing you learn in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune: Even Audra McDonald’s orgasms are musical. The classically trained soprano and six-time Tony Award winner enters the infamous opening scene of Terence McNally’s 1987 dramedy like every actress before her: fully nude and engaged in a mutual sexual crescendo with her equally exposed lover (played in director Arin Arbus’ 2019 revival by two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon).
Maybe it’s a little bit of an inside joke that she makes the moment of release sound so much like an aria, or maybe she just can’t help it. But her high notes set the tone for a current adaptation that feels both self-consciously dated by its references to Nancy Reagan, Charles Bronson, and VCRs, and refreshed by the restless energy of its two stars.
As a waitress and line cook dancing around middle-aged romance over the course of one sleepless New York City night, McDonald and Shannon are in some ways as mismatched as the protagonists they play: the queen of Broadway and the resident duke of cinematic weirdos, bluffing and bantering for two-plus hours onstage.
Johnny is all in, and all id, the opposite of hard to get. Frankie is much more reticent, continually pushing back at his attempts to turn sex into intimacy and a first date into forever. She’s not even sure if she wants to share a postcoital meatloaf sandwich.
But as they circle one another in Frankie’s comfortably shabby apartment, the onion layers of their vulnerabilities start to peel apart. Both were abandoned early by absentee mothers; both grew up in the same drab Pennsylvania town; both have reached their 40s without finding whatever it is they once hoped for. Johnny believes it’s never too late; Frankie swears she put her dreams away years ago.
Shannon, who spends almost every moment of the play either naked or in scant cotton boxers, brings kinetic physical energy to the role — a man so bursting with life that he might actually repel outerwear. He’s overbearing and utterly charming, often at the same time. McDonald, resolutely stripped of glamor in her worn bathrobe and scrunchie, brings a sort of earthy dignity to a woman who would rather keep her heart behind bars than expose it to hurt again.
Both spark off McNally’s crackling dialogue like they’re living the words off the page, breathing new air into his room-bound pas de deux. Ultimately, though, even their supreme handling of the material can’t quite justify shooting for this moon — already explored twice on a New York stage, and also onscreen — one more time. B